At age 17, Elaine Johnson Coates believed the Supreme Court’s new ruling ending “separate but equal” education for Black students would open the door for her to attend the University of Maryland. She didn’t expect her own high school guidance counselor to try to slam it shut.
An honors student, she’d grown up seeing her teachers around their West Baltimore neighborhood, and could see herself as one of these highly regarded Black career women.
At Frederick Douglass High, the city’s school for Black students, the counselor invited her lighter-skinned friend to apply for a scholarship. But she wouldn’t write the required recommendation for Johnson Coates. Instead, she encouraged her to become a secretary.
Pain-filled tears flowed during a long distance call to her mom, a domestic worker who lived in New York City. Alma Johnson offered her daughter unique advice: “Recommend yourself.”
Johnson Coates matriculated to Maryland in Fall 1955 with a full scholarship, beginning a path-breaking yet often-painful four years that led to her becoming the university’s first Black female to earn an undergraduate degree.
“I walked onto the campus frightened, somewhat apprehensive, but with a plan and purpose,” said Johnson Coates. “I began UMD at a much different time and my journey was not easy.”
For Johnson Coates’ parents, UMD’s location along Baltimore Avenue provided easy access, should racial unrest warrant her quick removal from campus. Alma Johnson and Robert Johnson, a railway porter, proudly escorted their intelligent, yet frightened daughter to campus. She was determined not to let them down.
At newly completed Caroline Hall, white dorm mates smiled and greeted her. The dorm mother, Johnson Coates recalls, was good and kind. Another Douglass graduate, Cecilia deFord, shared a third-floor room with Johnson Coates. They had known each other in high school only in passing, but the new roommates soon did everything together and grew close.
Johnson Coates thought of herself as a friendly person and expected others would reciprocate, but not everyone did. Too often, when other residents of the dorm knocked on the Black women’s door to announce a phone call, she or deFord excitedly rushed down the hall to pick up the receiver, only to hear nasty remarks, racial epithets or even a bomb threat.
The roommates endured daily isolation and verbal attacks. Unsurprisingly, Johnson Coates did not recall other campus friendships, and she rarely encountered other Black freshmen among the 10,000 undergraduates.
At semester’s end, deFord found life at UMD unbearable and left Maryland. Johnson Coates returned to campus with no one to sit or eat with in the dining hall, no one to talk to in the dorm room. Perhaps cowed by peer pressure, white residents spoke to Johnson Coates only inside Caroline Hall. Letters from her mom bolstered Johnson Coates, who hid her tears.
But her mistreatment extended beyond the dorm. Professors often graded her more harshly than her white classmates. Inside Caroline Hall, Johnson Coates compared responses with a friendly student. Opening their blue books, “I would write the same thing,” Johnson Coates said, “and mine would be marked ‘C’ while hers was an ‘A.’” She was not brave enough to challenge the professors directly, so the marks stood. At her mother’s suggestion, Johnson Coates instead enrolled in “mini-mesters” to raise her grades. Studying occupied much of her free time.
Occasionally, a pastor from the Church of God drove her to Baltimore services. The insular, supportive community was important to Johnson Coates, even amid the church’s strict rules. Dating was permitted only within the church fellowship. There, she met James Coates, who became her college prom date and future husband.
Johnson Coates fulfilled her student teaching requirement at Baltimore’s Carver High School. No Black College of Education students were placed in Prince George’s County schools. She attended the senior prom, completed her business education degree and participated in graduation at Cole Field House, along with another Black student in the college, J. Alexander Wiseman, who completed a doctorate.
But Johnson Coates had to abandon her plan to teach after five months filling out-of-state Board of Education applications. Maryland did not place Black educators in predominantly white schools, and Black instructors were not leaving their coveted placements. Johnson Coates pivoted, taking a social worker position at Baltimore’s Department of Social Services. She later joined the Douglass High School staff, teaching business education. Her husband’s military service took them to Pensacola, Florida, then to Germany, where her dream of teaching little kids came to fruition in Stuttgart. Meanwhile, she and her husband started their own family.
Raising children and a return to Baltimore social work marked the next four decades of Johnson Coates’ life. She said social work improved her teaching by developing her ability to read moods and evaluate the needs of the whole student—financial, housing or “whatever is going on in their life.” As a single mother after her divorce, she wanted to branch out beyond casework, to supervise others and better herself—goals she achieved by earning a master’s degree in social work at the University of Maryland, Baltimore in 1980. The MSW led to her crucial work in pediatric and adult trauma at the Johns Hopkins Hospital Emergency Department.
Johnson Coates, the proud parent of two UMD alumni, is impressed by the university’s growth and diversity. Awarded an honorary doctorate in 2020, she advised students to decide on their goals, then develop a plan for getting there. “Opportunities are there,” she said, “walk around barriers, there will be an opening…if you are determined.” She said students might never know who they will impact, who will be observing them, or who will benefit from their struggles.
Despite the challenges of her journey, Johnson Coates remains grateful and gracious: “The University of Maryland has embraced me with such welcome, respect, and honor. They’ve afforded me a legacy and a remarkable opportunity, and have forever touched my heart and my spirit.”
Author Note: On June 9, 1951, Rose Shockley Wiseman, Myrtle Holmes Wake, and John Francis Davis received their graduate degrees from the College of Education. They were the first Black students to march in commencement ceremonies at College Park. All of their coursework was taken at Bowie State from UMD professors.
Caption from ribbon-cutting
In September, 2022 Elaine Johnson Coates returned to the University of Maryland to celebrate the official opening of Johnson-Whittle Hall, a residence hall that honors her legacy as the first African American woman to graduate with an undergraduate degree, and fellow trailblazer Hiram Whittle, who enrolled at UMD in 1951 as its first Black undergraduate student.
“I am thrilled to be a part of the university’s honor, recognition and promotion of diversity and inclusion,” Johnson Coates said. “I count it an immeasurable privilege to have this building erected in my name, affording me a legacy and standing in testament that my journey mattered.”
Johnson Coates has also been recognized by the University of Maryland Alumni Association. She was one of seven Terps honored at their first annual Celebration of Terps: Featuring the Maryland Awards in 2019. She also addressed the Class of 2019 at their Commencement ceremony and received an honorary degree at UMD’s Spring 2020 commencement ceremony.